Rosa BalfourSenior Fellow in the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Europe not only can become stronger after the coronavirus pandemic, it has a global responsibility to do so.

Every day, Europeans are demonstrating that solidarity and ingenuity can be transformative. Apart from some cases of herd stupidity with people flocking to parks and beaches to celebrate spring, the vast majority of Europeans is physically distancing, offering support and empathy across borders, and inventing new ways of life.

This will be the basis for resetting Europe’s economy as it enters into recession: digital, green, and with far greater equality, as the pandemic will have demonstrated how fragile unequal societies are.

Alas, governments have not been so wise: a spectacle of random choices, incompetence, and petty blame-gaming only to adjust, late, to the example set by Italy. Some are exploiting the situation to strangle democracy. EU leaders meeting virtually on March 26, 2020, will need to demonstrate that they can rise to the challenge and make the right choices.

Domestically, the EU needs to support the transformation of the economy. Globally, Europe needs to lead the pushback against the unfolding geopolitics of coronavirus. Only international cooperation and empowered global institutions, together with resilient societies, can fight the pandemic.

Krzysztof BledowskiSenior Council Director and Economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation

It is possible but unlikely. Europe’s history is littered with good crises that went to waste. Let us look at just two sets of stylized ways through which Europe could emerge more coherent after the pandemic.

One bottom-up channel might draw on some form of social mobilization. Grassroots cross-border campaigns in support of medical staff and volunteers in areas stricken by the pandemic is one example. EU citizenry could also spontaneously target these regions for post-crisis waves of tourism to bolster their recovery. Still, even if these outward expressions of solidarity were to materialize, they could not mutate into lasting European identity. “Attachment to Europe” will be forged over many more decades of peacetime and wartime.

Top-down action also might contribute. European institutions have an opportunity to improvise with out-of-the-box thinking. National governments will always be more effective in battling shortages or propping up logistics. However, this crisis is as good as any for unconventional fiscal policies to see the light of day at the EU level. The European Central Bank (ECB) should roll out measures to shore up banks and forestall sudden financial stops.

In the end, whether these steps succeed or not might be less relevant than the mere fact that the crisis triggered a concerted European reaction.

Stephen BoucherFounder of Dreamocracy

Will things be different, even better, after the COVID-19 crisis? We might demonstrate renewed social resilience capacity, on two conditions.

First, we need to confirm that the recent but fragile move toward a more “deliberative” Europe is key. “Democratic societies build resilience by strengthening the engagement of their citizens, because that is the way to build consensus and also to generate new ideas that work,” states Roger Casale of Europe’s People’s Forum. Unfortunately, EU governments are scaling back their plans to consult citizens in the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Europe will be stronger if it uses this forced pause to introduce more collective reflection in our institutions. The French government initiated a citizens’ convention on climate. What if it took advantage of the forced suspension of legislative debates to relaunch the examination of its draft bill with a citizens’ convention on pension reform and care for the elderly? What if municipalities, regions, and countries around Europe organized deliberative moments to elicit lessons and good ideas emerging from this exceptional situation? And what if we invited citizens into the European Parliament to have them share their perspectives on long-term matters—as we have recently suggested?

Second, as we are all incredibly immune to change—as stressed by Harvard University psychologist Robert Kegan—we will need to challenge the deeper reasons why we are attached to unsustainable lifestyles.

Europe can overcome this crisis, if we are willing to challenge our immune mechanisms.

Ken GodfreyExecutive Director of the European Partnership for Democracy

Early talk on the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic centered on the fact that democracies were better equipped to deal with health crises because of higher transparency. That seems to have changed in recent weeks as China has been widely praised for its response, leading to calls for harsher security measures by governments, state surveillance of citizens, and clampdowns on freedom of speech online.

Coupled with a rise in nationalist rhetoric, this all suggests that the political fallout from this crisis in Europe is decidedly negative, at least for the moment.

The saving grace of the challenge at EU level is that all member states are equally exposed, unlike during the sovereign debt crisis and the migration wave of 2015. The good news is that the EU is dealing with this crisis by giving primacy to politics rather than to legal principles. Abolishing the stability and growth pact is an important signal not just for markets but to many eurozone governments.

If this crisis can lead to greater consensus on the necessary economic reforms at EU level, it may in the long run help assuage the populist rhetoric that is on the rise across the continent.

Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska and Luigi ScazzieriSenior Research Fellow and Research Fellow, respectively, at the Centre for European Reform

The EU’s initial response to the crisis was haphazard, with member states taking center stage. But the EU could emerge stronger from this pandemic if it learns from its past mistakes.

The EU’s concerted efforts to counter the economic effects of the coronavirus could lead to a breakthrough in eurozone integration. Both southern and northern member states could be equally hit by the crisis. This realization could prompt eurozone leaders to opt for a degree of risk sharing through debt mutualization—something inconceivable several months ago.

The EU could also prove its worth by better coordinating national efforts to counter the pandemic. The EU initially struggled to do so as member states decided to reintroduce internal border controls, but it could prove useful once national suppression efforts succeed in “flattening the curve”; without coordination at the European level, a decision to relax emergency measures in one member state may lead to a renewed outbreak elsewhere.

Sooner or later the European public will realize that their governments cannot deal with this global crisis on their own. If the EU can show that it is ready to support member states every step on the way it will have improved its image across the bloc.

François HeisbourgSenior Adviser at the International Institute for Strategic Studies

We are only at the beginning of a pandemic whose future evolution remains uncertain. With already three times China’s death toll, the EU countries are unlikely at best to be able to lift confinement in less time than the Hubei province—and that’s assuming we don’t have a second wave. Nor can we fathom yet how our economies, which are entering meltdown, and societies traumatized by confinement will deal with the aftermath when it happens.

The EU may strengthen if it demonstrates virtues which are relevant to coping with this dire situation. It can use its scale—the zeitgeist, according to which this crisis is putting the national ahead of the EU dimension, is wrongheaded. There was no EU dimension in healthcare in the past; that needs to change.

More broadly, the EU’s technocratic culture may be harnessed to the command-economy requirements created by warlike conditions.

In war, effectiveness is of the essence: the EU is good at designing the sort of big programs which post-virus recovery will call for, even as it continues to be terrible at proving its immediate usefulness on the frontline. When Italy urgently needed masks and ventilators, China, not the EU, stepped in.

Ben HodgesPershing Chair at the Center for European Policy Analysis

In theory, yes. But it won’t happen automatically or by default.

Clearly, we must continue to address the pandemic now and resist the urge to relax the current measures in place too early. Our parents and grandparents endured years of sacrifice during World War II. We can manage a few months.

There are some steps we should take now:

  1. Think strategically. Start talking now about life after this pandemic—like the allied powers who were planning for the post-war world well before V-E Day.
  2. Demonstrate that we can learn. Leaders should accept responsibility, stop blaming others, admit where we got it wrong, encourage learning and innovation, and implement as rapidly as possible. This will reestablish trust.
  3. Look for opportunities to cross borders to help, even if it means prioritizing a neighbor over yourself—what our parents taught us. This builds cohesion.
  4. Build up societal resilience. Prioritize and incentivize healthy lifestyles, reward and publicize responsible behavior in all aspects, and emphasize effective health care systems versus efficient health care systems, so that we can better absorb the next pandemic.

This pandemic gives Brussels a chance to demonstrate that it can deliver. A well-functioning Brussels during this crisis will be remembered as a well-functioning Brussels.

Dominik P. JankowskiPolitical Adviser and Head of the Political Section at the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Poland to NATO

It is too early to say. At this stage, most European countries have not even entered the most acute phase of the coronavirus pandemic. But one thing is certain: Europe will not be the same.

The coronavirus pandemic will have a severe long-term impact on Europe’s core stabilizing factors: open societies, the free market economy, and security and defense. For example, as Europe enters into economic recession, one should expect a strong push to reduce defense spending, which will have negative consequences for NATO and transatlantic relations.

In the short term, one needs three elements to help Europe start becoming stronger: increased societal resilience (by using all available civil preparedness and military means), adopted economic recovery plans, and better and more coordinated strategic communications (to fight Russian and Chinese propaganda).

Stefan LehneVisiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe

Possibly, but it will first have to survive the crisis. The coronavirus has a nasty side effect: national egotism. Many governments immediately closed borders and banned export of relevant medical supplies. “Everybody for himself” seemed to be the prevailing attitude, and, as a result, Schengen is now on life support and the internal market shows many signs of infection.

More recently, there have been individual acts of mutual assistance among member states, such as shipping medical equipment to Italy and receiving some French and Italian patients in German hospitals. But at this stage, these are little more than symbolic gestures.

The European Commission is trying to encourage EU-level crisis management, but as the key powers for health and economic policy remain with the member states, its influence is limited. Paradoxically, it is the EU’s most technocratic institution, the ECB, whose massive bond-buying program expresses most clearly that this is an EU-wide crisis that must be overcome through collective efforts.

Managing the economic fallout will be the real test of the union’s cohesion. Ensuring the survival and later the recovery of the most affected countries will require an unprecedented level of solidarity among member states. If the EU lives up to this challenge, it might in fact in the end emerge stronger from the crisis. If not, it might not have much of a future.

Luuk van MiddelaarPolitical Theorist and Author of Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage

Yes, Europe will come out stronger from this pandemic, at least in the sense of Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

It all depends where you look. In terms of executive agency, the EU will be more robust a few months from now. As a rules-based political body without a strong central executive, the EU is upset by every crisis. Each time, events force it to invent new tools.

In the euro crisis of 2010–2012, the imminent danger of “financial contagion” [sic] between member states was met with rescue shields built from scratch. In the migration turmoil of 2015–2016, a European border guard was set up. Likewise, the COVID-19 disaster will certainly lead to new agencies in public health, perhaps more financial risk sharing.

In a decade of crisis management, national governments have also learned to cooperate intensely. While the idea of monthly EU summits was ridiculed ten years ago, on March 26, 2020, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and their 25 colleagues will hold their third teleconference in as many weeks. The emancipation of the EU executive continues.

However, if you look at the public experience of EU action, cracks will appear. Recent crisis management over the euro and asylum left scars; divisions between North, South, and East are not yet healed. It will be no different this time. Any movement toward stronger EU-wide solidarity meets resistance, also—or perhaps even more—when it concerns matters of life and death.

Daniela SchwarzerDirector of the German Council on Foreign Relations

Europe can become stronger after the pandemic if national leaders take into account the long-term consequences of crisis management measures and the costs of non-action.

Initial crisis responses were national. This is unsurprising as governments hold full responsibility for managing the health emergency. However, both the health and the economic crises can best be tackled by coordinated and joint European action. Failure to do so can harm the credibility of national leaders and of the EU. Here are three things that help ensure Europe comes out stronger.

Firstly, leaders need to effectively treat the pandemic in close coordination within the EU and the World Health Organization. These efforts need to be balanced with decisions that serve to limit the economic slump and prevent a financial crisis. For this, national and European economic and fiscal policy measures, as well as ECB decisions, need to be orchestrated in a careful yet powerful way to uphold the credibility of the euro and European economic integration.

Secondly, leaders should refrain from measures that undermine the single market, which is the EU’s biggest asset. The EU needs to contribute to tackling threats to citizens’ health, to governments’ ability to provide medical care, and to protecting European corporates. Leaders may need to invent new instruments as they go about crisis management, which worked in the management of the sovereign debt and banking crises of 2010.

Finally, the EU and those national leaders who are willing to defend the values and principles on which the EU is based need to openly challenge any effort to undermine democracy or the rule of law. The health crisis provides opportunities to do just that, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s recent initiative to install an indefinite state of emergency shows.

Amanda SloatRobert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings

It’s too early to tell, but thus far communities and member states have proven more resilient than the EU.

Among citizens, there is evidence of innate human selfishness as they hoard toilet paper and resist requests for voluntary social distancing. Yet there is also a strong sense of solidarity, ranging from heroic doctors to balcony serenades.

Within countries, the picture is largely positive. Governments have generally responded in a timely manner to the crisis. Capitals who welcome advice from experts and speak frankly to citizens have earned the greatest trust. Multiple governments have, in a bid to reduce transmission rates, tested the bounds of civil liberties by restricting citizens’ movements. More problematically, some leaders have done so at parliament’s expense.

Across the EU, solidarity has been lacking. As with the financial and refugee crises, the coronavirus has challenged tenets of European unity. Some countries initially refused to export protective gear, and many reintroduced internal border controls. The relaxation of state aid and fiscal constraints highlights the need for national-level action. Officials even bickered over decisionmaking via video conference.

Although health is not an EU competence, coronavirus doesn’t respect borders. That’s why the EU’s capacity for a collective response is being tested. Just wait for the post mortem once this crisis ends.

Daniel SmilovAssociate Professor at the University of Sofia and Programme Director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies

Еurope will either come stronger out of this crisis, or it will no longer be a credible political project. There are three problems that need to be solved:

First, the coronavirus needs to be contained within reasonable time and in a non-catastrophic way regarding the economy.

Second, the emergency situation should not be allowed to consolidate the authoritarian and illiberal tendencies especially prominent in the eastern part of the continent.

Last but not least, Europe—both the EU institutions and national governments—should act together to deal with the economic consequences of the crisis in a way which is both effective and seen by the peoples of Europe as fair.

These are difficult but not impossible tasks. They require a lot of good will and intelligent coordination of action beyond what is available as established institutions and procedures. Of special importance is the economic recovery—if national egoism wins the day, the EU project will be in existential trouble.

On the bright sight, these tasks give the EU a clear purpose in times when it is often accused of having lost its way.